Tuned In: Not-so-simple life in 'Nimrod Nation'

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At first, the new Sundance Channel documentary series "Nimrod Nation" (9 and 9:30 p.m. Monday) appears to be a light-hearted look at "how the other half lives," the other half being the denizens of tiny Watersmeet, Mich. They sound like Canadians, eh, and the snow-covered frozen lakes look like the same tableau as in "Fargo."

But any cuteness is erased by somewhat graphic scenes of a deer being skinned and a pig being shot in the head. Neither is gratuitous ; it's just how these people live.

"I have a gun in my car, who doesn't?" says one fresh-faced teenager. "It's just the way we are. We love huntin'."

Fans of cinema verite are likely to love "Nimrod Nation," a slice of Americana not often seen in prime time. The series is comprised of eight half-hour episodes, two airing every Monday for the next four weeks.

While the show ostensibly follows the ups and downs of the Watersmeet Nimrods basketball team -- a Nimrod is a hunter or warrior, per the Bible's Genesis 10:8 -- it's actually more of a portrait of the town as a whole.

ESPN viewers already know the Nimrods from a network promo. After the commercial garnered acclaim, filmmaker Brett Morgen ("The Kid Stays in the Picture ," "Chicago 10") decided to return to the town to offer a fuller picture of life in this community on Michigan's upper peninsula.

Townsfolk who emerge from the crowd include George Peterson III, the Nimrods' coach as well as the principal of the town's single school that serves grades kindergarten through 12. His son, George IV, is on the team, which makes for an interesting look at fathers and sons in episode two, airing Monday at 9:30 p.m.

That episode also explores the culture clash with Native Americans when a local newspaper pictures a white student who scored 1,000 career points but not a player of Native American descent who did the same at a previous game.

"Nimrod Nation" paints a complex picture of a simpler way of life that may not be as affected by popular American culture as larger towns and cities, but that is touched by it. Some viewers may be offended to hear teenage boys using the f-word (unbleeped), but that's what some of them do, whether you're in Los Angeles or rural Michigan.

At a July press conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., creator Morgen said Watersmeet first came to his attention during the creation of the ESPN spots that sought school mascots with quirky names.

"I've always wanted to do a portrait of small-town America," he said. "When the commercial exploded -- and it ended up selling $750,000 in Nimrods merchandise -- I knew there was a hook to enable me to do the show that I've really wanted to do, which was a show that was sort of celebrating small-town America, traditional American values."

Morgen sees "Nation" as an antidote to the contrivances of reality television. It's also a way to showcase, in a humane way, characters who may otherwise be ignored by liberal-leaning Hollywood.

"We have scenes sort of celebrating the ultimate Red State," he said. "It's almost like it could be done for the Pax network. That's what's subversive about it on the Sundance Channel, a network that's known for [a show about transgendered people]."

Morgen said his goal was to avoid a condescending or patronizing attitude toward the citizens of Watersmeet. Those featured seem to approve of what he's done.

"Brett did a fantastic job in portraying we're small-town America. Everybody in the community is part of an extended family," said Jeffrey Zelinski, who is featured in "Nimrod Nation." "We don't lock our doors. We don't fear nobody. My kid goes out at 2 o'clock in the morning, picking nightcrawlers, and I'm sleeping. It's laid back. We don't worry about anything, but we love basketball."

Sundance Channel can be found on Comcast Channel 165, former Adelphia systems Channel 164, DISH Network Channel 332 and DirecTV Channel 549. Armstrong Cable does not carry Sundance.

TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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